Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

Speaking Up

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If the tragic events of the past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that there is value in speaking up. You can, in fact, make a difference by speaking up. You can drive change by speaking up. You can enable opportunities by speaking up.

It has also shown us, there will be retribution for speaking up. Speaking up is not easy. Some will seek to punish you for speaking up. People will tell you they’re right behind you and then when you look over your shoulder, you are alone and yet those who are committed, will continue to speak up.

I’m not qualified to ramble about the struggles so many have had for so long; despite being a person of color. I’m not an expert on criminal justice reform. I haven’t lived the same life like so many others.

However, I do feel qualified to ask – if so many are being so brave, by speaking up, knowing their lives are actually at risk; then why do so few people speak up about things in the office? When not looking for updates about curfews, the scale of the dangerous rioting, and how peaceful protests were being carried out across the country, I spent the last week researching organizational cultures and why speaking up rarely happens.

I wanted to start with this passage from HBR Ascend:

When employees speak up, companies benefit. Thus not surprisingly, lots of leaders say they want to encourage their employees to speak freely, whether it’s by offering creative new ideas, identifying process improvements, or even calling out unethical behavior. But several studies suggest that leaders often undermine their own efforts to get employees to speak up.

Research by Ethan Burris, for example, has shown that leaders generally react quite negatively to employees who challenge them, even when employees do so constructively. Employees trying to resist certain changes or demands in non-hostile and constructive conversations are more likely to be labeled poor performers by their supervisors.

The bolding for emphasis was my addition. Those parts of the quote stuck out to me.

Then, there was this passage from Inc.:

Your door isn’t really open: Asking people to give you feedback, and being available to take it are not the same. Make sure that when you say your door is open, you really mean it! Even better, don’t mention that “your door is open”, but instead that you’ll come to them!

And, lastly, this quote, pulled from an article by Cosmos, one of the leaders in enterprise compliance:

One of the major challenges in business ethics today is creating a safe environment where employees can raise concerns about possible misconduct and wrongdoing. Despite the proliferation of helplines and ethics offices, creating a safe environment where employees can raise concerns about possible misconduct without experiencing retaliation is still one of the least well-developed elements of most business ethics programs.

Throughout my career, I’ve consistently spoken up. It hasn’t always been met with open arms. I’ve certainly been penalized for it. I was once “downsized” 4 days after speaking up about a possible significant breach of our company’s ethics policy. Despite that situation, I continued to speak up throughout my career. Why? Well, it goes all the way back to my first job at Fallon. I hadn’t even graduated from college yet and I was working at Fallon’s Minneapolis office. One of my mentor’s Katie McGough and I were in a tense creative review meeting. Some things happened. There was a heated argument between the creative director, designer, and account director. Pat Fallon always pushed for a healthy debate and wanted to make sure only the best work left the office. But, this debate blew my mind as someone who had only had a job for ~7 months. After the meeting, I asked Katie was that common, and weren’t these people afraid of losing their jobs by pushing back so strongly and with the language used? Her answer sticks with me to this day:

Adam, if you want to make it in this industry, you have to believe that you can get fired today and get a job tomorrow. Your very best is in high-demand and the minute you stop bringing your very best, you’ll be let go anyway.

I think her point was that you have to have confidence in your convictions. Today, I see that as speaking up based on facts first. Facts are real, they’re objective, and they’re substantive. But, facts alone, are generally worthless. So, those facts must be coupled with a point of view built upon experience. When you can say, “in a previous role”, or, “I encountered this same challenge last year”, or something similar, those facts take on added credibility.

Speaking up can have consequences and often we only consider negative consequences. But, there’s also the possibility of positive consequences. Change can happen. You can make a difference. But, it does start with speaking up.

There are people speaking up right now, protesting on city streets, and demanding change. They could be physically injured, or worse. Sorta puts things into perspective, right?